One family’s experience serves as a painful lesson as to why you must protect yourself and your family with these basic estate planning documents.
Twenty five years ago, a young woman living in Florida suffered a terrible heart attack. Terri Schiavo was resuscitated but sustained massive brain damage that left her in a vegetative state. Her husband, wanted her feeding tube removed, as he believed this would have been her wish. Schiavo’s parents wanted her kept alive. As detailed in Harrisburg Magazine’s article, “Protect Yourself,” the result was seven years of agony for everyone. After 14 appeals and interventions by lawmakers including President George W. Bush, Schiavo’s feeding tube was disconnected. It was a nightmare that could have been avoided if there had been a properly executed and signed living will.
A big issue in this fight was that those closest to her testified she never would have wanted to be kept alive in a vegetative state, but Schiavo hadn’t signed a living will. Therefore, if you fail to have the legal documents necessary to express those intentions, no one will know what they are. Without leaving your written wishes, it takes important decisions out of the hands of your family.
End-of-life directives are just one of the legal documents that are needed to protect us. Wills and powers of attorney (financial and medical) are crucial for sound estate planning. A financial power of attorney allows another individual, like a spouse or trusted friend, to take care of your financial affairs in the event that you become incapacitated, which is particularly useful as you get older.
A medical power of attorney is like a living will, but it details more than deathbed concerns. It also allows your trusted agent to be given your private medical information and to decide health care issues for you if you’re incapacitated.
Wills are extremely important, especially for those with children. They let you name a guardian for your children if you and your partner pass away. This step will prevent the courts from deciding who should care for your children or a dispute by relatives over guardianship. In some states a will is not required, but another legal document specified by state law will suffice.
Even unmarried people without any kids should have a will. If not, state intestacy laws will dictate how your property will pass to your heirs. If you die without a will, the state will distribute your assets to your next of kin. This could be someone you don’t really like or whom you’ve never met.
Everyone has heirs. Even if you think you don’t have anyone, there’s likely a cousin out there somewhere, and the intestacy statute will try to find the next of kin. If you have a properly prepared will, you can leave funds to charity, and make sure that the funds go where you want them to go—instead of to some distant relative with whom you have absolutely no relationship.
Living wills, wills and powers of attorney are not pleasant to consider and may seem unnecessary when people are young and seem healthy. But the Schiavo case is a reminder of what can happen in the absence of proper estate planning.
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